Review: Manga Exhibition at the British Museum, London

Around the world people are familiar with manga as Japanese comics, but manga in its broadest sense runs deeper than that which is where the British Museum’s Manga Exhibition comes in to trace the roots of manga as a form of storytelling, which predates its current graphic form, as well as to introduce visitors to the various forms of manga.

The largest exhibition dedicated to manga ever held outside of Japan, the British Museum may be an unlikely venue to host a Manga exhibition you may think, but in fact the British Museum has for almost a decade been collecting manga.

Some 70 manga series from 50 artists – including original drawings, books, and animations of varying genres and styles – take up a relatively small space in the rather collosal British Museum.

It may seem like a tall order to exhibit 162 items in a 1,100-square-metre space, whilst attempting to span the history of manga, show how the comics are produced, and provide a taster of the various genres the comic books cover, but the British Museum’s curators have pulled it off impeccably well. At the halfway point of the exhibition, it even manages to replicate a Japanese manga bookshop where visitors can sit and sample a selection of some of the world’s most famous manga books.

In its aim to provide manga enthusiasts both young and old with an overview of the Japanese visual narrative storytelling form that has grown to become a £3billion industry, the Manga Exhibition begins with an understanding of manga and symbolism, as well as the history.

Manga, which translates as “pictures run riot” or “pictures unbounded”, is by its very nature a visual form of storytelling with very little text. Traditionally, manga books are read from back to front and from the upper right corner to the lower left corner of a page. Manga images are supplemented by sound effects that include onomatopoeia and imagined sounds, which are important components of the Japanese language. Given that, the Manga Exhibition provides an explanation on how lines are drawn in manga to visually express emotion, actions and to convey sounds. While manga comics include text, albeit minimal, many of the comics do so well in visually telling a story that the graphic art could stand alone.

Originating in the 1800s from satirical cartoon strips in newspapers, manga has had a huge influence worldwide and the Manga Exhibition explores manga’s cultural dominance, from the cosplay conventions it has inspired to its most iconic characters including Astro Boy.

In its attempt to show how manga’s “roots stretch back further than you might imagine”, the exhibition displays key works which precede the contemporary manga that many of us are familiar with. One of these is a 17 metre-long stage curtain painted by artist Kawanabe Kyōsai for the Shintomi Theatre in 1880. The artist’s comical painting depicted the members of the acting company as various kinds of monsters. Looking at Kawanabe Kyōsai’s expressive lines on the curtain, you can see how this has influenced modern day manga.

What’s great about the Manga Exhibition is that it serves just as well as a comprehensive introduction to this Japanese storytelling form to someone who has little experience of manga as it does reinforcing the passion that ardent fans have for manga. As visitors work their way around the exhibition, the British Museum highlights the diversity in manga, providing a flavour of its various forms of manga – love and romance, science fiction, horror, adventure, sports and comedy, to name but a few.

I myself was especially drawn to the artworks of Manga artist Takehiko Inoue’s samurai manga, Vagabond. Miyamoto Musashi is one of the main protagonists in Vagabond, a historical figure considered one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history. As a young man he embarks on a journey to become the strongest samurai after being exiled from his village.

Another that resonated with me was Dragon Ball, written and illustrated by Akira Toriyama. Dragon Ball, which began as a manga series between 1984 to 1995, is the second best-selling manga of all time. Dragon Ball chronicles the adventures of a cheerful monkey boy named Son Goku as he trains in martial arts and explores the world in search of the seven orbs known as the Dragon Balls, which summon a wish-granting dragon when gathered.

Displays by Hoshino Yukinobu, a specialist in science fiction and mystery manga, also leapt out at me with his crime-fighting character, Professor Munakata, armed with his knowledge of historical myths and legends.

Towards the end of the exhibition, visitors are treated to large screens displaying the anime works of the legendary Japanese animator and filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki. The co-founder of Studio Ghibli is also a manga artist. His early works as a manga artist, Nausicaä, has been available in English for years, but much of his manga remains largely untouched.

I’ve always been fascinated by manga, and so having visited the British Museum exhibition I came to realise that prior to my visit, my experience of manga had merely scratched the surface. Herein lies the genius of the British Museum’s Manga Exhibition as it will touch everyone in different ways, and it will also inspire visitors to go and seek that genre of manga that appeals most. And so there really is a manga for everyone, and that’s the power of manga!

Manga Exhibition is on at the British Museum from now until 26 August 2019 

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyle including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at

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